Dec 2, 2004

What you need to know to shop for digital cameras

By DON LINDICH
Scripps Howard News Service
02-DEC-04

Digital cameras are projected to be among the hottest holiday gifts this year. If you are looking for a digital camera for that special someone, these shopping tips will help you find one that is just right.

The three features most relevant to consumers are megapixels, optical zoom and the LCD screen. They will have the most impact on your picture-taking experience and the photographic results you will obtain with your camera.

Megapixels means millions of pixels. Pixel is a contraction for "pixel element", or an individual dot used to create the image. So, a 5 megapixel camera uses a digital sensor with 5 million separate pixels to create the image.

The more pixels there are, the more detail can be recorded. This makes your pictures look better and they can be enlarged to bigger sizes, as well. If you have more megapixels, you can also crop smaller areas out of a full-sized image and still have enough pixels to make a good print.

As a rule of thumb, camera with 3 or 4 megapixels will make a very nice-looking 8x10 inch print. Images produced with cameras having 5 megapixels or more can be enlarged to even larger sizes and still have a deep, detailed look to them.

More pixels does not always mean better photographic results, however. Cameras with high megapixel counts (more than 5) tend to perform poorly in low-light situations. Over the past year or so there have been newly introduced cameras with over six megapixels that performed poorly in photographic tests.

This is because the lens was not up to the task of the high-resolution sensor, or the sensor itself had design flaws. Be sure to research cameras before buying. Good sources of camera reviews online are dcresource.com for everyday folks and for the more technically minded, dpreview.com has exacting scientific testing results.

As a general recommendation, amongst camera manufacturers, Canon, Sony and Panasonic seem to be doing an especially good job producing cameras with excellent performance across their entire model line.

When comparing digital cameras, disregard terms such as "digital zoom" and "combined zoom". These simply crop the sensor to change the recorded image, and greatly diminish final picture quality. The only zoom of consequence is the optical zoom. An optical zoom refers to a lens that changes its optical configuration to change the image falling on the sensor. Because the entire sensor is used, picture quality is the same no matter how much you zoom in and out.

Zoom is specified in two terms _ 35mm equivalent and range. A 35mm equivalent of 50mm is considered normal perspective; 35mm and lower are wide-angle settings. Equivalents of 70mm and up are considered telephoto, which magnifies the image, bringing it closer. So, a camera with a range of 35-105 mm (the most common specification) changes from a wide-angle to a telephoto.

Range is given in multiples, such as 3x, 4x, etc. It is obtained by dividing the large zoom number by the small zoom number. The 35-105 example given above would be a 3x zoom.

Greater zoom range provides more composition possibilities, at the expense of camera size and cost. A 3x zoom is adequate for most family shooters.

Last but not least is the camera's LCD screen. It will not affect photographic results, but a large, clear LCD screen will add greatly to your enjoyment of your digital camera. If you are torn between two camera models and don't know which to buy, the LCD screen can be a good tiebreaker!

You don't need to own a printer to make good prints from a digital camera. The best way to make prints (especially small ones) is still by using a photo lab such as the ones you find at department stores and camera stores. They have a self-serve kiosk that enables you to select and print your pictures from a CD created on your computer, or directly from a memory card. They can even create a picture CD from your memory card's images, so you do not lose the pictures when you erase the memory card and start over. Prints made by a lab are durable, long-lasting and look and feel exactly like the pictures produced from 35mm film, because they are produced by essentially the same process.

After you select a camera, make sure you don't forget a printer if you want to make prints at home; be sure to get a printer using at least six ink colors. Four-color printers do not reproduce photographic realism as well as six-color models do. When printing, for the best results use photographic paper from the same manufacturer as the printer. Third-party paper can produce good results, but using paper from the printer's manufacturer is the easiest way to get consistent, repeatable results.

(Don Lindich is the author of "Digital Photography Made Easy," a small book for new digital photographers. He welcomes your questions at www.dpmadeeasy.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)